Segolene Royal got a running start Thursday to her campaign to become France's first woman president, decisively beating two rivals to wrap up the nomination for the main opposition Socialist Party in a single round of voting.
The win, which party officials announced with about 40 percent of votes counted, spared Royal a second round against her two rivals from the party's old guard — former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
It also meant she can head into the April vote claiming the oft-divided opposition party is fully behind her. Party officials said an early tally showed she was set to win around 60 percent of the vote.
"The results show rather clearly the fact that there will only be one round, and we can say that Segolene Royal is already the candidate for the Socialist Party," said Stephane Le Foll, chief of staff to the party's general secretary.
He said he was basing those comments on official results from 64 regions, representing more than a third of the 219,000 Socialist Party members who were eligible to cast ballots in the so-called "primary." An estimated 84.95 percent of party members voted Thursday, he said.
Strauss-Kahn and Fabius conceded defeat, their spokesmen said.
‘The hour now is for unity’
Royal, speaking confidently shortly before her victory was announced, said she "recognized the honor I have been given," and "the momentum I've received to be chosen this way."
"The hour now is for unity," she said.
That could be a tall order for the party, which has repeatedly battled divisions during the tenure of conservative President Jacques Chirac, who has won the presidency in both elections since 1995.
The Socialists, who dominated the French political scene a generation ago, have been searching for direction since former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's embarrassing third-place finish in the last presidential vote, in 2002.
The party also has been licking its wounds since the national referendum on the European Union Constitution last year, which caused a massive rift in the party — and French voters overall rejected it.
Though a spectrum of candidates from far left to far right are gearing up to run in the presidential election, the centerpiece of the race is likely to be a battle between Royal and the front-runner on the mainstream right — Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
A poll published Thursday showed respondents equally split between the two. In a first round of voting, Sarkozy would edge out Royal by 34 percent to 30 percent, the poll said — but in a runoff, they would be at 50-50. The IFOP agency conducted the poll Nov. 9-11 by telephone among 948 respondents. No margin of error was given.
The Socialists, who ran the government under Jospin from 1997 to 2002, made one of their biggest marks with passage of the so-called 35-hour workweek law — which conservatives say has hurt the economy.
‘They are dangerous’
Critics say the Socialists have no feasible recipes for facing a globalizing economy or revitalizing growth. The party manifesto calls for expanding use of the much-maligned workweek law, re-nationalizing utility Electricite de France, and punishing companies that move jobs abroad.
"They refuse the realities of the world, and even those of Europe. They act as if France can live in a bubble," Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who has hinted at presidential ambitions, said Thursday. "They are dangerous for our country."
But Royal's supporters say she is of a different breed — a smooth lawmaker who has shaken up the political scene in a nation disenchanted and in need of change. Many say a woman president is the tonic needed.
"That would do us some good," said Socialist party member Philippe Chleq, 72, one of the 68,000 party members who joined since June, after voting. "There is so much machismo in politics, it's disgusting. She'll help change that."
Royal, 53, has sought to distance herself from the Socialist line and tap into broader voter disillusionment with politics after two terms under Chirac marred by corruption scandals and stagnation.
However, her unorthodox views have also alienated many people within her party, and her opponents say she won't be able to unite the divided French left.
"Tomorrow, I'll have the job of bringing them all together — including those who didn't vote for me," Royal said in the victory speech. "I am counting on them."
The members-only voting in the primary added an element of unpredictability to the race, since no polls were conducted during the campaign among party members alone.